John Carey on James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom:
For and Against the Masses

The early twentieth-century fictional character who stands out from these dismal representatives of mass man and mass woman is Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloom is not wholly uncultured. ‘There’s a touch of the artist about old Bloom,’ Lenehan concedes. However, Bloom is distinctly not a literary intellectual. The only book we see him buy is called Sweets of Sin. His interest in a statue of Venus is the rudimentary one of examining its private parts. We encounter him seated on his outdoor privy, reading the popular newspaper Tit-Bits. His job is canvassing advertisements for newspapers like the Evening Telegraph, and when we see him at the office Joyce intersperses his account with newspaper headlines. Joyce, then, pointedly embroils Bloom in newsprint and advertising, which were, for intellectuals, among the most odious features of mass culture. Virginia Woolf predictably condemned Ulysses in terms that relate to social class and lack of education. It is, she judges, an ‘illiterate, underbred book’, the product of ‘a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating . . . I’m reminded all the time of some callow board school boy.’

Yet Bloom is not, of course, treated dismissively by Joyce. By the end of the novel, we know him more thoroughly than any character in fiction has ever been known before. We know his secrets, his intimate memories, his half-formed thoughts, his erotic fantasies. We watch him performing bodily functions of a kind strictly excluded from fiction hitherto. We know of his unspoken griefs over the death of his son; over his father’s suicide. We know his height (5' 9 ½"), his weight (11st 4 lb), and the date on which he last had intercourse with his wife (27 November 1893).

Can we say, then, that in Ulysses mass man is redeemed? Is Joyce the one intellectual who atones for Nietzschean contempt of the masses, and raises mass man, or a representative of mass man, to the status of epic hero? To a degree, yes. One effect of Ulysses is to show that mass man matters, that he has an inner life as complex as an intellectual’s, that it is worthwhile to record his personal details on a prodigious scale. And yet it is also true that Bloom himself would never and could never have read Ulysses or a book like Ulysses. The complexity of the novel, its avant-garde technique, its obscurity, rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership. More than almost any other twentieth-century novel, it is for intellectuals only. This means that there is a duplicity in Joyce’s masterpiece. The proliferation of sympathetic imagining, which creates the illusion of the reader’s solidarity with Bloom, operates in conjunction with a distancing, ironizing momentum which preserves the reader’s—and author’s—superiority to the created life. The novel embraces mass man but also rejects him. Mass man—Bloom—is expelled from the circle of the intelligentsia, who are incited to contemplate him, and judge him, in a fictional manifestation.

SOURCE: Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), pp. 19-21. Footnotes omitted.

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